Seven Concerns on the Linux Desktop

After years of trying to match proprietary desktops, the Linux desktop has yet to find a new destination -- or even a compass point.
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If you use the Linux desktop, you've never had it so good. Contrary to the critics who either haven't used the desktop recently or quibble or a minor feature, Linux interfaces are better than anyone could have imagined when they first started being developed a dozen years ago.

At the same time, the major desktops -- GNOME 3, KDE, and Ubuntu's Unity -- seen to have reached the point where they have lost direction. With GNOME 3 and Unity failing to be the successes everyone hoped and KDE settling down into maturity, none of the major desktops seem to moving toward any well-defined goal.

Instead, the major desktops seem to be responding to the pressures around them rather than taking charge of their direction. Some of these pressures are self-created, while others are historical or common to all modern desktops, free and proprietary alike. Some are barely articulated, although they operate no less powerfully for that.

Whatever their origins, here are seven concerns that are shaping the Linux desktop today:

1) The Struggle to Define "Usability"

Not long ago, usability on Linux was conspicuous largely by its absence. Now, thanks to the latest release series by KDE, GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity, few concerns are discussed more.

The trouble is, exactly what usability means differs with the project. For GNOME 3 and Unity, usability seems to mean implementing the discussions of usability experts, and expecting users to change the habits of years on the assumption that the experts know best.

For instance, so far as I'm aware, few people were complaining that the GNOME desktop was cluttered. But the designers decided that a radical simplification was what users really needed, so GNOME 3 sported "distraction free-computing" whose dual screens were more distracting than anything it was supposed to correct.

Similarly, Unity reconfigured its desktop so that opening a menu takes users away from the desktop where they are actually working.

To make matters worse, both GNOME 3 and Unity are aimed at new users, with the needs of veterans largely ignored. In particular, administration and configuration tools are so deeply buried that, at first, users may assume that they no longer exist.

For all the controversy that greeted the initial release of the KDE 4 series, on the whole the current versions of KDE do a much better job of preserving the work flows that developed over the last decade while trying to extend them. The means for preserving or enabling those work flows may be different than in earlier versions of KDE, but at least they exist.

Other desktops like LXDE seem to be gaining users simply by continuing to provide basic desktop functionality -- that is, they serve mainly as a space in which to launch applications. And, for many users, this is all the definition of "usability" that seems required.

2) Mobile vs. Workstation Design

Mobile devices are probably the most common form of computer in most people's lives. If you want to simplify computers for users, and reduce the amount of code that developers need to maintain, from one perspective it makes sense that the desktops on mobile devices should drive all desktop design -- more sense, at least, than transferring workstation desktops unchanged on to phones and tablets.

Yet the reverse is also true: desktops that make sense on mobile devices are not the most efficient for workstations.

Mobile desktops are constrained by the small screens, so that frequent changes of screens are unavoidable. Nor is screen-changing likely to produce repetitive stress injuries, since mobile devices tend to be used less intensively than workstations.

By contrast, workstations today are generally attached to high-resolution wide screens, many of which are over 21 inches. Under these conditions, the multiple screens on mobile devices are no longer a necessity, but a potential disruption to concentration.

Moreover, during four or five hours of work, the extra mouse clicks or keystrokes can add up to serious injury, even with regular breaks. Yet this difference seems generally unrecognized. The only major desktop that has faced up to this fact is KDE, whose Activities layouts are basically shells with the same code underneath, and include at least two layouts originally designed for netbooks (Newspaper Layout and Search and Launch).

3) The Pressure to Innovate

About five years ago, the Linux desktop reached functional parity with its proprietary rivals. This milestone went mostly unrecognized, but one of its consequences was the shift to usability.

Almost as important, though, was the question of what to do next. Having equaled the functionality -- if not always the look -- of Windows and OS X, how could the free desktop surpass them? What new features would keep users coming back and developers continuing to work?

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Tags: Linux desktop, Gnome, KDE, Unity

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